The Fan Hitch Volume 12, Number 1, December 2009

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog
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Evolutionary Changes in Domesticated Dogs:
The Broken Covenant of the Wild, Part 4

An Examination of Traditional Knowledge:
The Case of the Inuit Sled Dog, Part 1

Greenland Dogs of the Eiger Glacier

Boss Dogs and Lead Dogs

Tip: Pack Your Parka

IMHO: Two "New" Dogs

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From Greenland dogs on the Eiger Glacier

Almost One Hundred Years of Greenland Inuit Dog Service
Comes to an End at the Eiger Glacier in Switzerland

by  Stijn Heijs

This year, the close of the tourist season in Switzerland was marked by the end of a long-standing tradition. The management of the Jungfrau Railway decided to discontinue the sled dog service tourist attraction at the Eiger Glacier. The presence of sled dogs at the Jungfrau Railway started almost one hundred years ago.

I hear you thinking, "Why and how did Inuit Dogs from the polar region end up in Switzerland anyway?" This is all connected to the existence of the Jungfrau railway track which was completed at the end of 1912. It took sixteen years to build the railway up to the 3,454m (11,330ft) high Jungfraujoch station. Until 1896, tourists only traveled to the Small Scheidegg station. Then the route was extended to the 2,320m (7,612ft) high station on the Eiger Glacier. During this construction period there was no alpine railway operating. In order to supply the construction workers and railway employees at the Eiger station with provisions and mail, the Jungfraubahn company decided to buy sled dogs. In their search for these dogs they wrote a letter to the zoo in Hamburg stating:

"We have read in different books that Eskimos own extraordinary tough dogs that can withstand any degree of cold and that can be put to use as team dogs. The question arose whether such dogs would be suitable for our purposes. In our situation, horses cannot be used as pack animals because they tend to sink into the deep snow…"

But, the zoo had no dogs available. After searching around they found Samoyed dogs in Scotland. These first Samoyeds arrived in Switzerland in the beginning of 1913. The route from Wengen to the Eiger Glacier had to be covered twice a day. This meant a total of 34km (21mi) of untouched mountain terrain with deep snow and inclines of up to 30%.

The first Samoyed team on the Eiger Glacier, 1914
    Photo by Philipp from Greenland dogs on the Eiger Glacier

It soon turned out that the Samoyed breed was to light for the high demands expected. After more searching, the railway management found reinforcements with six Inuit Dogs from Greenland, four males and two females. They originated from the same area as the dogs used by Roald Amundsen on his dash to the South Pole. These dogs were acquired with Amundsen's help.

The Inuit Dogs were put with the Samoyeds and soon a fight broke out between them, reducing the number of Samoyeds to three.  The start of the sledge work required a lot of effort, but beginning in October, 1913, the first daily trips to the Aletsch Glacier were made satisfactorily.

Tourist dog rides on the Aletsch Glacier in 1930
Photo by Philipp from Greenland dogs on the Eiger Glacier

After the railway had taken over the job year round, the dogs' only task were sled dog rides for tourists. This made them well known over the world, and even in 1930 they covered the front page of a U.S. newspaper.

When the first dog handler, Mr. Soltermann, had to resign because of age after twenty-six years of service, the railway company had difficulties in finding a good replacement. Over the next ten years there were over fifteen different dog handlers. This inconsistency created a decline in the kennel's population, in the dogs' behavior and the breeding program. In 1971 the Jungfrau Railway acquired a new director, Roland Hirni, a serious dog lover, and he pushed for a new start. Hirni hired Kurt Werren and his wife Barbara who put a lot of work into the project. Of the eleven dogs left at that time, only six could be put to work in the mountains. There were no bitches among them available for breeding. So it was agreed that new dogs should be imported. In 1974 three new dogs were imported from Sweden. And in 1975 the first new litter was born.

In 1977 the Werrens handed over the care of the dogs to Pierre-Phillipe Oriet. He brought with him another eight Greenland Dogs which he already owned. He continued the tourist rides during summer period on the 3454m (11,330 ft) high glacier. During the winter he came down and entered mushing races in Switzerland. In recent times the dogs have been taken care of by Thomas  Kernen, Danielle Linder and Rolf Geiser.

On the station, the dogs lived in groups of four to six. Every group had its own kennel of over 70m2 (753.5ft2). The total kennel exceeds the 2,500m2 (26,910ft2). The station is situated at an altitude of 2,320m (7,612ft).

Group of up to six Greenland dogs
From Greenland dogs on the Eiger Glacier

The dogs were not only used for tourist rides in that period but also some canine research was done on these dogs. The Swiss Albert-Heim-Stiftung studied the impact of high mountains on the health of dogs (go here for reading the German language report on the research)*

The tourist attraction has always cost more for the Jungfrau Railway company than it earned. Over the years 2002-2008 only 0.6 % of the visitors to the Eiger Glacier participated in a dog sled ride. The maintenance of this Greenland Dog colony on the glacier was costing around 300,000 Swiss Francs ($300,000 USD) every year. The kennel is very old and needed to be fully renovated, requiring an investment of 1.5 million dollars. This financial loss, together with the fact that global warming has created regular periods of above freezing temperature on the glacier, making it difficult for the dogs to work, had brought the Jungfrau Railway management to the decision to stop with this tourist service. At the end of October, the dogs made their last trip.

Of the population of sixteen dogs still in the project as of this past summer, five went with their handler, Thomas Kernen, to his home in Kandergrund. Two found a new home in Sarnen. Two died of old age before the end of the season. The other seven found a new home with an Alaskan Malamute musher and breeder, Caroline Schneider and her partner Danioel Schlafer, in Rüeggisberg. They have recently established the foundation, "Fruende der Polarhunde" (Friends of Polardogs). Donations to this foundation are welcome: Freunde der Polarhunde, 5245 Habsburg, c/o Neue Aargauer Bank, IBAN CH52 0588 1049 6353 6100 1.

Sources used for this report:
Book: Greenland dogs on the Eiger Glacier, 1984 by Arthur and Annette Philipp.
Several Swiss newspaper articles on the topic of stopping the colony.
Die Grönlandhunde vom eigergletscher, Schweizer Hunde Magazine, 3/2006.
Hunde in Hochgebirge by Albert Heim Stiftung, Hunde, 5/2005.

Thomas Kernen and Weltmeister
Photo: Franziska Scheidegger, Fotografin

* See also "Non-invasive measurement of the cardiovascular effects of chronic hypoxaemia on dogs living at moderately high altitude", published in a 2003 issue of The Veterinary Record, Vol. 152, Issue 26.

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